Consult the index

I’m presently mired in what is one of the most tiresome, tedious tasks I’ve had to perform in my academic career. Bear in mind that I say this as someone who spent three years tracking levels of herbivore damage on 20 000 individual leaves as part of my PhD. I’ve counted pollen. I’ve catalogued herbarium specimens. This is an order of magnitude worse.

The task at hand is to produce an index for my textbook, Natural Systems: The Organisation of Life*, which is finally due to be published in March 2016. I knew that indexing would be hard. I didn’t quite appreciate how hard. And that’ while using LaTeX, which makes everything much more straightforward. I can’t even imagine having to do this in hard copy or (shudder) in Microsoft Word**.  There are some useful guides to indexing. There’s even a book called Index Your Book Fast, though one suspects that the time taken in reading it would more than offset any gains. None of them make it any easier.

While it’s not difficult to imagine an ideal index in abstract terms, actually putting one together is trickier. I’m currently working through the book sentence-by-sentence, deciding whether this or that term is a passing or substantive mention, whether it needs to be nested within other groups, and when I might ever finish. Who or what deserves a place in the index? Main concepts are obviously in. What about taxa, important people, study sites, species… where does it end?

As a book reviews editor myself (for Frontiers of Biogeography) I’m acutely aware of that typical complaint by reviewers that ‘subject X doesn’t even make it into the index!’ This could mean any number of things: that the subject isn’t covered by the book, that the index has omitted to mention it, or that the reviewer hasn’t read the book properly. A skim of the index is often one of the first things a prospective purchaser does while browsing and forms a central element of the impression a book makes. Getting it right is crucial because it makes a book more useful to future readers. Too long or trivial and it’s overwhelming; too short and it looks skimpy.

One might ask why I’ve bothered writing a blog post about a topic so dull as indexing (although if you’re finding this particularly fascinating then you should read The Indexer, the international journal of indexing). In part it’s as a corrective to recent posts which may have given the false impression of my life as one of tropical jaunts spent being pursued by dangerous animals. All that happens, but actually 9 months of my year is spent in front of a computer screen. I’m also keen that you realise, when you turn to the back of a book and flick through the index, that a surprising amount of work has gone into preparing it. And, in my case, a surprising amount of wine.


* The blurb on this site is a cut-and-paste from the original proposal, submitted three years ago, and doesn’t really capture the book content. The cover image is also under review right now. All this will be filled in over the next couple of months.

** I haven’t used Word in several years, and it’s made my life immeasurably happier. You could do the same.

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3 thoughts on “Consult the index

  1. sleather2012

    I indexed my first book using a car index system as recommended by a book on the subject rather than going with the publishers electronic system which took me ages – I was really chuffed when one of the reviewers of the book as well as praising the book commented on how good the index was 🙂 I still have the record cards that I used to make the index

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  2. Margaret Kosmala

    I indexed my high school yearbooks back in the day, and it was fairly straightforward — mostly just looking for names — but still tedious. At the time I couldn’t imagine how proper books were indexed and always assumed it was and editor-type job. I’m super surprised that authors are responsible for them! Should it be a separate job? I can imagine that the author knows the material best, but perhaps it’s easier for an outsider to pick out the bits that are most important and worth of indexing.

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    1. Markus Eichhorn Post author

      Yes and no. Most publishers can find a professional indexer for you, but this is an additional cost, usually subtracted from royalties. You will likely end up having to check it anyway. As a non-specialist, they are less well-placed to tell the difference between a trivial mention and a key passage, or what terms the likely readers of your book will want to look for. I actually found the process of thinking about this to be quite useful, even if it was painful.

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